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Solving the Puzzles of the New Testament

November 25, 2013

When I got the idea of a short article about understanding the New Testament, I started to mentally list some of the puzzles and enigmas that exist in this small library.  There are many!  I began reviewing how different people deal with the stories there, and the new theological ideas that truly “soar to the heavens” and plumb the depths of the human condition.   I realized that to even lay out some of the key enigmas, or the concepts that have captured the hearts of so many through 20 centuries, while remaining “foolishness” (Apostle Paul) to so many others, would itself take more than a whole post.


Elias Hutter New Testament Polyglot

Elias Hutter New Testament Polyglot (Photo credit: FirewallJC)


So I’ll suggest just one of the most explored issues, at or near the core of so many others: Just who was Jesus Christ? 


There is the human Jesus, the real man who gained a rather small following, initially, in what became our “first century” thanks to his very existence (plus what the New Testament made of him).  There is the kingly or even cosmic, divine Christ (Messiah expected by the Jews), so cleverly elevated to cosmic savior status by Paul first, then by “John” and others.


Some of my own previous posts have explored the many fascinating aspects of how people “way back then” understood and followed Jesus the Christ and how their influence carries powerfully forward to this very day.  For today I’ll suggest one simple but heavily loaded concept for your thought and comment: In a very general way, those who focus mainly on  Jesus the man and seek to follow him, as a man, operate from a different worldview than do those who focus mainly on Christ the “Second Person” of the triune God.


I won’t take time to go into the vast implications of one’s “worldview” or concept of the nature of reality beyond that statement itself.  It’s hard to overstate or “over-imagine” its impact.


As powerful and generally consistent are our worldviews, our minds do not consistently interpret everything we encounter in terms of a set-in-concrete worldview…. Our worldview can and does change — on rare occasions, radically and quickly.  But, especially on a conscious level, our thinking seeks consistency.  We set up a basic interpretative system for life and events around us (or coming to us from ancient books), usually by our late teens or early twenties.  We then generally work (often without thinking about it except during religious services or philosophy courses) to keep it stable…. We need a mostly-constant framework or “interpretive lens” through which to see the world and ourselves.


So what is the worldview of each of the different points of focus, the different “Jesuses” that people follow (and with them, different deciphering of New Testament puzzles)?  The big-picture angle is what is often called supernaturalism.  It’s not just about that God exists but what kind of God exists.  It’s not just that there is something beyond the natural realm but that “the God who is there” intervenes in a fore-planned way in human affairs.  God gives “revelation” through “his” chosen people and certain prophets among them.  This is how we know about God “himself” and what God expects of us.  


The opposite and somewhat-less-common wide-angle worldview is naturalism.  Within this perspective, for some Christians, Jesus is a great moral teacher and example but only human, not a divine savior.  It is not, however, religious people who have propelled this vision of the world and how “reality” works into cultural prominence, understandably.  It is scientists and other secularists.  While fewer people hold this view in the US, it is what the world operates through more than supernaturalism — business and general culture in addition to the vastly influential enterprise of science.


These two paradigms seem to cover all the options.  In one sense they do.  But are we forced to view things just one of two ways? One, as though God intervenes and has given us both an historical and predictive record of where we’ve been and where we’re going, with how to please God, be “saved”, etc., along the way.  The other, as though no God exists, nothing “higher” or more guiding of life than random selection and “laws of nature” that come from who-knows-where.  


Thankfully, there are other ways of understanding reality and of conceiving of whatever God may be there.  These can and often do take the Bible seriously… they find inspiration and wisdom aplenty in both the “Old Testament” (as do both Jews and Christians) and the “New Testament”. (I generally place in quotes when using these long-conventional terms for what are perhaps less presumptuously called Hebrew Scriptures and Greek Scriptures.)  Yet they have more interest and more flexibility to make sense of the many puzzles of the New Testament… of accounting for the surprising rise of Christianity within what is mostly a cloud of obscurity.  


Did God supernaturally send Jesus as a sacrifice for the sins of all humanity? To defeat the powers of darkness? Did God attest to this and to the authority of a small group of Apostles with numerous miracles in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and in their ministries? Or did God have nothing to do with any such reported events and didn’t send Jesus because no God is there to do this?  Put as either-or, as does the main contentions of typical supernaturalism and naturalism, we often “submit” and pick one or the other, or vacillate as we alternately believe and doubt.


However, there are other ways to understand God, taken partly from clues about God in the Bible, along with those from the wider world.  One developed view I will discuss in the next post.  It rejects the notion that either God intervenes in powerful ways, at least on occasion (usually believed to be frequent in personal lives), or there is no God to intervene and we only imagine certain events to be interventions.  Some of the puzzles of the New Testament can be much better solved and a more realistic view of the beginnings of Christianity be gained, along with that of the authority of “The Church” (read either as Roman Catholic or whatever).


11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 29, 2013 8:00 am

    Reblogged this on norlynblog and commented:
    As I continue with my re-engagement with Christianity (after closing the door on my father’s warped fundamentalism 41 years ago), I am crossing paths regularly with Christians who are truly Christ-centric (not Paul-centric). Howard Pepper is a breath of fresh air, and it has been a delight to get to know him. For anyone who believes that what Jesus taught matters greatly, but that “Bible idolatry” severely limits and distorts the meaning of an infinite God of infinite love, I highly recommend Howard’s blog.

    • November 30, 2013 8:39 am

      Thanks for the reblog and comment, Norlyn. There are a great many of us who have been down a similar path, persistent in pursuing truth wherever it leads. And if we’ve had to break former alliances, seeking to do it with respect and dignity and preserve whatever we can of important relationships involved.

  2. November 29, 2013 8:00 pm

    So, its obvious from reading this that the author does not adhere to the inherency of scripture. I get it. Also, the author demotes Paul whom Peter confirms as inspired to a saboteur of Christ’s message. That’s not new, and I feel like it is easily countered.

    The thing that has me perplexed is the Demotion of John to Saboteur. John was the only eyewitness to Jesus’ death on the Cross among the authors and apostles of Christ. John, to whom church fathers claim direct Apostolic authority (e.g. Polycarp).

    Finally, even without John, the so-called synoptic gospels all record a resurrected appearance of Jesus. That screams the acceptance of Christ as deity.

    I would love to debate this further. I think C.S. Lewis’ Liar, Lunatic or Lord argument holds here.

    • November 30, 2013 8:53 am

      Thanks for the comment, Ray. I’m not sure where to engage your thoughts. Since I’m not sure when I’ll get the promised “next post” up, I’ll give a sneak preview (actually it’s already here and there among my posts): I’m referring to “process theology” as an interpretive lens or big-picture framework (paradigm) through which to interpret not only Scripture itself, but the phenomena recorded in the Bible… some of which are more “real” than stereotypical “liberals” would perceive and some of which are indeed fanciful literary inventions. And it IS hard to always tell the difference.

      For example, your citing of “resurrected appearance[s]” of Jesus: Per Paul’s use of “appear” in I Cor. 15, I do presume that Jesus in some manner may well have “appeared” to not only Paul, well later, but closer to his death, to James, Peter and several others, or maybe a crowd “appearance”, even, as claimed by Paul in the same passage, whether or not the “above 500” is a literal estimate. However, accepting such appearances does not prove a bodily resurrection which left an “empty tomb” either. Both can be true at once. The approach of Process theology allows for a deeper analysis of that possibility, not precluding any/all unusual or “beyond normal” phenomena recorded in the Bible from being valid or “real”.

      • December 1, 2013 6:44 pm

        Each gospel records the empty tomb and resurrected appearances of Christ. Luke records in Acts one of the qualifications of becoming an apostle to replace Judas was to have seen the resurrected Christ. 120 men were being considered before Matthias was eventually selected.

        I guess I’m confused as to why you allude that John and Paul are alone in the deification of Christ among the New Testament authors.

        Also, do you have thoughts on Paul’s very early quoting of pre-existing creeds that profess a deified Christ, and Peter’s confirmation of Paul’s teaching.

        • December 3, 2013 3:24 pm

          Thanks Ray,

          Actually, the Gospel of Mark does not include any resurrection appearances unless you accept vs. 9-20 of the final chapter as being part of Mark’s original… almost all scholars (whether “conserv.” or “critical”) do not, because that section does not appear in most of the reliable and early copies that we have of Mark; and the science of textual criticism (or “lower criticism”, largely apart from criticism OF the text, as you may know, or “higher criticism”) is pretty clear that it was added later, as is also the case with the “woman caught in adultery” passage in John. (Check 4 or 5 different Bible versions you tend to trust and you will probably see that they handle Mark 16:9-20 a bit differently, but many/most (?) since real old editions of the KJV or maybe the RSV at least set the section apart as an alternate or extended ending, with a note somewhat like this in my NIV version: “The most reliable early manuscripts omit Mark 16: 9-20”.

          It does make a lot of sense that a later scribe may well have noted the strange, unexpected (in relation to the other gospels) ending of Mark and felt it should be amended to fit better with the others… be all that as it may, such problems along with a close comparison of the accounts in each gospel does create a very murky picture of what “appearances” may have been: to whom, when, where, in what manner, etc. The general stories just don’t fit well if one reads them separately and compares them…. That alone doesn’t negate them, but it does raise a lot of questions that should lead to caution in how one takes these stories.

          Even if it is assumed they must all be somehow correct and accurate, they just don’t fit with one another. And the entire story from crucifixion to resur. appearances in Matt. is a highly fanciful (tho not impossible, entirely) one that does not at all fit the picture painted by Luke in Acts when he picks up right after the resurrection… If you’re curious what I mean re. that, just ask… I won’t take time/space for it here.

          As to deifying of Christ, it may be more than just Paul and John in the NT, but it almost certainly is not anything said directly by an Apostle (of the “Twelve”), unless you go against scholarly consensus on “Peter’s” Epistles not being by him. If “James” is by James the Jerusalem leader, it does not include anything indicating Jesus’ deity (including calling him “Lord Jesus Christ”). In that, Luke using the rhetorical device of composing ideal “speeches” at critical moments for Peter, Stephen, Paul, etc. does not equate to direct statements by Apostles.

          The Paul and early creeds issue can get complex but basically, such creeds in themselves, however they may have “read”, do not necessarily indicate Jesus as uniquely divine. If you’ve not, I’d recommend you reading such works as “From Jesus to Christianity” by L. Michael White, “The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity” by Schweitzer, “How Jesus Became Christ” by Barrie Wilson, or other similar books by accomplished scholars, and often people of faith as well. You may well not agree, but you will at least discover some of the careful examination of the New Test. and it’s backgrounds, etc. and the analysis of people who take a different view than historical orthodoxy on this and a number of key points.

        • December 3, 2013 5:02 pm

          I guess I’m confused also as to the overwhelming scholarly consensus you speak of as well. Specifically the scholarly consensus that Peter the Apostle is likely not the author of his epistles. I’ve read some who may believe his words were scribed by another as he spoke. He was also likely a source for Mark.

          Your inference though is that scholarly consensus questions the authorship rather than simply the scribing dictation and structure editing of the source. Not only is there no consensus, but your’s is a minority held opinion mostly at non-orthodox leaning seminaries.

          Even if I do throw out 9-20 (Which I don’t necessarily. Older is not always better as we’ve confirmed now with other ancient texts.), you still have the issue of the empty tomb and the angelic appearance to the women. Also, verse 6 quotes the Angel, “He is Risen” The Greek word “εγείρω” is used which can literally be defined as “To Stand from a lying position.” The word is very descriptive of what happened.

          You also neglect Mathew along with John who were eyewitnesses. Matthews writings are very early as was Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

          Also, Paul says he is telling us what he learned directly from the Apostles while studying with them after his narrow escape from Damascus. He quotes creeds from them which deify Christ and mention his raise from the dead. Scholarly consensus really does place these creeds quoted from as few as 5 years from the crucifixion.

          I could go on and on, and would be glad to do so, but I don’t get why folks want to try to twist scripture. It’s fine to not believe the resurrection, but it seems one has to work really hard for very, very little in order to make scripture teach that the resurrection didn’t happen, and Christ wasn’t deified by his followers. Why bother?

  3. December 3, 2013 5:12 pm

    BTW, I have read a few of the texts, specifically White and Wilson. I have an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Religion, and a Master of Theology Degree, The latter from Liberty University. I took two classes from Dr. Habermas. One on the Resurrection and the other on the Personhood and Incarnation of Christ.

    • December 3, 2013 10:50 pm

      Thanks for sharing a bit of your background, Ray, particularly your education. If you’ve not read about mine, the “Personal Story” accessed on the menu near the top will give you quite a bit. As my blog itself probably indicates, I’ve done a lot of biblical study, along with other often-related areas (psych, anthro, sociology, etc.) beyond my formal education as well.

      As to “why bother” when one is not (or no longer, in my case) a believer in orthodox views of biblical authority, revelation, etc. (let alone inerrancy which I didn’t hold to even while definitely “Evangelical” or “orthodox”, as many X’ns do not), here are a couple things for me: It is both part of a continuing “spiritual path” and a “pure learning” exercise (to gain deeper understanding re. various things — what some might call an “academic” exercise). I am fascinated to learn all I can, and share at least some of it, about how people individually and in groups and societies feel, believe, and practice things spiritually or as part of a “religion”. (In that I include Xnty, fully knowing that many see it as the true faith and NOT a “religion”, as I long did myself).

      The reasons I moved from orthodox Christian to what I call either “progressive” or “process” Christian are multiple and complex… too much to recount here. But I can say that reading “higher critical” or “historical critical” scholars did not play a major role. Most of such reading I’ve done came after various studies and exposures all across the spectrum of theology, etc., and a deeper look into various aspects of science and cosmology and especially the Bible itself basically “forced” me to re-view things. (This was on top of many years of formal and mostly traditional – orthodox/evangelical – studies.)

      What I can also say now, from this vantage point, is that it is quite clear to me (and I think many, many others) that seldom do the many books and articles written by conservatives for the non-technical (i.e. in biblical scholarship) public take me further in exploring the many important and fascinating issues about how Christianity actually began and grew in the first century or so; how that relates to what Jesus actually taught and did (which is tough to know in much detail because of the drama/story aspect of the Gospels), etc.

      On the other hand, because other scholars (of the “historical critical” approach) are not tied to the need to take most things literally or as necessarily reliable history in either the NT or OT, they are continually leading me to deeper analysis and understanding, which I generally go back to the Bible itself, or other sources, as pertinent, to confirm or dis-confirm. Furthermore, it has historically been mostly men (and a few women) of faith who have taken such an approach, not as “attacking” the Bible or Christian faith, but out of honest interest and curiosity to understand it deeper, explore it in great detail, etc.

      • December 4, 2013 7:50 am

        I can understand that. I think I made some pretty good arguments above, prior to my background statement in response to your reply, but we needn’t get into that.

        I also don’t want to hijack your blog to endlessly go back and forth. If you would indulge me though, I would like to address one thing you wrote.

        You inferred there is a difference in folks studying scripture as inherent and authoritative than someone like you who studies it for historical context.

        Proper hermeneutics is the primary goal of any theologian, and historical accuracy and context is of vital importance to achieve prior to determining theological concepts, let alone applying ancient covenant theological concepts in the modern era.

        Perhaps I read a little too far into what you are saying, but it seems you are inferring that incorporating the supernatural descriptions depicted within the historical account somehow obstructs the forensic study of the account. I would agree with that 100% unless…

        …unless the supernatural things actually happened. In that case, not incorporating them would be a fatal error.

        It would appear, in my estimation and from a distance, your problem may be more with the supernatural than with Paul or John.

  4. December 4, 2013 11:32 am

    I realize I didn’t respond specifically to all your points… gets just too time-consuming. But no worries re. “hijacking”… you can see I get relatively few comments on the blog, though a fair stream of readers. I enjoy a civil and exploratory back-and-forth, and I respect your civility and respect though we clearly have significant differences of view.

    As to a prob. “more with the supernatural…”, a couple things for starters: The post itself (which we are discussing at least indirectly) lays out the situation which exists — one that I think is largely an accepted view of the natural/supernatural dichotomy existing in most of Western culture as well as Middle Eastern. In other words, my words there are meant to be a description of typical ways of seeing and communicating about reality, not any invention or creativity of mine. My next post (intended to be up by now) was going to discuss a bit about at least one additional viewpoint: that of “process theology”. Or we could discuss any similar approach which basically says, “The way we’ve set up an interpretation of ‘reality’ (including God and God’s interaction with humanity) is flawed. We are defining “natural” and “supernatural” too tightly and assuming we are at least generally, if not always, able to distinguish the two, and thus the direct involvement of God in the “natural world” or human affairs.

    My whole contention, after long being an “insider” in a typical “supernaturalist” paradigm, is that we have a very limited set of perceptive skills, analytic and intuitive abilities (such as sensing and responding to God), etc. This limitation makes it very hard to dependably distinguish between supernatural and natural, if such a dichotomy even does exist. My suspicion is that it does not… it is just a “convention” of our minds and communication patterns, trying to make sense of puzzling, or awe-inspiring or other kinds of events and perceptions. Yet, many of us who presently seek a clearer, better way of describing reality and our place in it, still feel and believe in a connection to something “higher” or beyond ourselves which we are o.k. with still calling “God” (for lack of a better widely used term, despite its supernatural connotations).

    So do I have a problem with “the supernatural”? Yes and no… for a good non-binary answer. I do with the typical way of separating that out from the “natural” world or natural processes. I don’t in the sense described just above. Am I denying clear, authoritative revelation from God (as in the Bible, particularly) in holding such a view? I think not, not at all.

    It’s not just me, by any means, not finding clarity or harmony of concepts throughout the Bible. Nor is the case for revelation coming uniquely through biblical writers at all clear or strong. Are they often “inspired” and “inspiring”? Certainly, though inspired in a way that is not exclusive to canonized Scripture, whether Hebrew/Greek or any other. The Bible is not without SOME kinds of authority (such as the collective or inspired wisdom it often represents). But I can no longer find ANY way to see that its kind of authority is based on verifiable or even reasonably “faith-based” evidence (cf. Heb. 11) of unique communication from God. Supposedly “fulfilled prophesy” is generally the core basis of the opposite view and unpacking THAT one is more than one or two articles in itself…. But I’ve certainly re-examined it in depth, having studied it much from both a position of “orthodox faith” and then of questioning, and eventually after rejection of that particular concept….

    But AGAIN, things aren’t so simple as “throwing out the bathwater” and the baby (subtle yet sometimes powerful ways God does seem to use flawed human messages) needing to go with it.

    Anyway, further on your point. I completely get that when I am saying (or anyone is) that, from all I can see, God does not intervene with “disruptions of the natural order” (again, based on such a dichotomy process people tend to see differently), I complicate study of Scripture. How can one sort out what is historical from what is not? There are no clear or “objective” standards, indeed. Everyone will see that differently at one point or another. But even as it is, each person has a personalized interpretation of the Bible and books or sections within it, WHILE accepting all as historical and/or literal. That on top of general schemes of interpretation varying between traditions (RC, Protestant, Orthodox, and all the orders, denominations, etc., within them).

    I don’t think we ever can sort it all out… and that is not of any real emotional concern to me. I’m not concerned to discern “the plan of salvation” and whether my faith and/or behavior fits within it, nor to have the right concept of “end times prophesy”, or “sanctification”, etc., any longer.

    Finally, to apply all this to the resurrection accounts we’ve been discussing some: My interest is not in claiming that no resurrection happened… I frankly don’t know, after probably thousands (or at least many hundreds) of hours of study looking at that biblical point specifically, on top of so much more besides. I am indeed highly skeptical of the KIND of “bodily resurrection” described in some of the Gospel accounts (but not in Paul, as I can best understand him). But I DO presume that not only Paul, but many other early Jesus-followers did have some kind(s) of “resurrection appearances” they experienced, which may indeed have been some kind of communication from the spirit of Jesus. And it may have been “real” visually, not mere hallucination. This would not be highly unusual and also not necessarily “only psychological”. Nor purely “mythological” either, tho myth-making certainly entered in fairly quickly, as one would expect and sees in many, many situations.

    And, no, I don’t see any good reason to believe we have direct, “eye-witness” reports. I don’t either think traditional (or “conservative”) views make a strong case that the Gospel writers themselves recorded direct eyewitness reports given to them (e.g. Peter to Mark), although I allow that it’s possible. The earliest Gospel, almost certainly Mark, was almost certainly written soon after the destruction of Jerusalem, not before, in my view, consonant with many careful scholars. I don’t know of any good reason to presume that Mark had contact with Peter, which almost certainly would have had to be by 64 or 65, prior to the start of the Roman-Jewish war in 66. Similarly with the other later Gospel writers and their possible sources.

    Going back to an earlier point and the resurrection appearances situation, you can readily see that I do not, and adamantly refuse to, see things overly simplistically, as they are typically seen, both by the “faithful” and by “skeptics”. The truth lies “somewhere between” (or around, within)… and that is both important and fascinating to me as well as to a small percentage of curious, exploring people who do want practical application for at least much of what we learn… a kind of “faith to live by”.

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